Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Day Johnny West Found (and Lost) Religion

Religion was the foundation of my childhood. As Christian Scientists, we  worked hard to lift our thoughts into spirituality so that input from the physical senses, both tempting and traumatic, wouldn't distract us.

We went to church (Sunday school for me) every week and often to Wednesday evening testimony meetings. We prayed silently, discreetly, sincerely. We prayed for misunderstandings to clear up; for insight; and for physical healing. I understood that my main goal was supposed to be manifesting God's spiritual perfection

One of my church's tools was the weekly bible lesson. As a kid I read at least part of the lesson before school. My parents read the whole thing every morning without fail. We each had a set of lesson books (bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy) and the week's citations organized with chalk and markers. Our lesson books were parked by our favorite reading chairs. Whatever else I read, the lesson came first.

But then I dove into horse books. The Black Stallion series of course, and everything by Patsey Gray. But also Glenn Balch's westerns. The Golden Stallion Adventures. And everything in between. When I wasn't reading, I worked on the Montana cattle ranch in my family's basement.

We lived in Massachusetts. It was years before I discovered I didn't even know how to say "Kalispell." No matter: I was too busy with roping and roundups. Riding fence, herding cattle, capturing mustangs and practicing for the rodeo. I had a Johnny West doll  and of course he wanted a homestead. I headed not west, but south: downstairs to our unfinished basement. It was part wood shop, part laundry room, with rough concrete underfoot and dark corners. But a window let in the sunlight, a door led straight outside to the the High Country and there was enough room for dozens and dozens of plastic horses and ranch buildings.

First it was just Johnny and his ex-military buddy Captain Maddox on neighboring cardboard Circle-X Ranches. Then the additions began: boxes for extra rooms, sheds, and a bunk house, building-block corrals, Tonka trucks and a small elegant wooden stable from the model horse store one birthday. My dad built the crowning touch: a big, beautiful wooden barn. We snatched it from his workbench before it was completely finished, loaded the mow with dried lawn clippings, the tack room with plastic saddles, sprinkled sawdust on the floor and crammed in all the horses that would fit. My sister and various friends were involved during the hey-day of the ranch, and it expanded accordingly.

I guess this is why they call a big western farm a spread.

Meanwhile, the families grew. We had Living Skippers, bust-less Barbie siblings who could out ride the boys on saddle broncs or race rogue stallions straight to the winners circle; more Johnny West Marx-brand alumni in Jay and Jamie West and Geronimo; a lone GI Joe named Ted recovering from Vietnam by working as a hired hand; and Stuart and Gordon, Marx knights outfitted with suits of plastic armor who'd dropped inexplicably into semi-current-day Montana. They knew better than to ask how.

We didn't have old-west shoot-outs or rob stagecoaches; ranch life was about horses.

And life was good on the Circle-X. Our pedigreed horses were trained and conditioned, groomed and bathed. The ranch houses were furnished and stocked with toy food. The gang wore tiny bluejeans my mother sewed, and developed tanned  complexions from their outdoor lives that I refused to believe was only grime. We competed in Calgary Stampedes, Cow Palace cutting horse championships, rounded up cattle all over the backyard, and found secret valleys hiding wild horses we trained for the Grand National. Reality was no barrier. Say it with me: All things were possible through the ranch. 

I never asked myself why the Wests were free to load the cardboard horse trailer and head for a show on Sunday when I had to get special permission from my parents to skip Sunday school. It was taboo to think about. It made me uncomfortable. For one thing, if Johnny and kin were religious, they'd have to go to the First Church of Christ, Scientist. In Ka-LISP-ell.

But being religious didn't only mean attending Sunday services. Johnny would have to read the lesson before chores every morning, not to mention praying over every colicky saddle horse...and maybe giving pretend testimonies about it on Wednesday nights... And pretending to pray and have healings was completely sacrilegious; I knew that was how my parents would regard it if they witnessed it.

Worst of all, it would destroy the unfettered freedom  that was the point of playing On the Ranch. I would not allow the strict parameters of my church in my imagination.

(So...was my church a reasonable way for people to live on real ranches?) I shrugged that thought away like a mustang twitching off a fly. Until one fateful day.
I was friends with a girl a year older who lived down the road. She was boisterous, energetic and loved the ranch game. She could also be raucous, which made me nervous. One day she said, "Let's have them go to church!"

"No," I said weakly. She didn't understand that, at my house, religion was as taboo in games as it was mandatory and powerful in my life. She and I had been to each other's Sunday schools. I think hers was Methodist; she knew mine was Christian Science. But she didn't seem to understand that religion in my family was solemn. 

"It'll be fun!" She made the ranch hands put on their best clothes. We gathered armfuls of dolls and set them in rows on block benches. Then she began to preach. I couldn't help laughing, and she warmed to the subject.

"God made the mountains, God made the lakes,
God made TED--but everyone makes mistakes!" 

It was too funny. Ted was the hapless GI Joe, powerless now that he'd been decommissioned and stripped of weapons and uniforms, awkward with his too-flexible body, utterly ridiculous on horseback. I protested--I liked Ted--but my friend raised her arms to lead us in prayer.

"Everyone repeat: God made the mountains, God made the lakes--"

We were both shrieking with laughter when my mother blasted in from the other room, quoting the bible at the top of her lungs.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me! Thou shalt have no other gods before me!" 

We froze. I could have died. It would have been preferable.

My mother was red-faced and so passionate she almost seemed to sob. It was as if she was that incarnation of the all-powerful spirit, unleashing well-deserved wrath on me. "Thou shalt not take the name of the lord they god in vain! Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images! Thou shalt not bow down thyself to serve them for I the lord god am a jealous god!"

I'd done it. It was unforgivable.

My friend looked completely impressed. We were silent for a very long time after my mother stumbled out of the room.

"Wow," my friend said. We gathered up the West family and friends and took them back to the non-theist ranch where they belonged.

That day, I vowed to never make that mistake again.  As all-powerful author of the lives of the cowboys, Johnny West, Jay, Jamie, Geronimo, Ted et all, (including the hand-less, unidentified toy soldier my sister found in the salt marsh behind my grandmother's cottage in Maine) I created an amended week. I applied it not only on the ranch but to another drama with tiny plastic horses and English moors that took place in my bedroom, and to all of what I think would now be called RPGs, my "role playing games."

I banished the concept of Sunday. My week had six days.

A couple years later I relented. I allowed my imaginary characters to return to a normal week. No one ever was tempted to sneak off to church. Nothing more serious  than a horse show or race ever happened on Sundays.

I'd never heard the word"secular." I would have had no idea what it meant. I know my mother never meant to shame me so thoroughly, but that day was imprinted on me. Religion was the dog-whistle I was powerless to resist. I guess it's obvious how clearly I remember.  And how I longed for a world without it.

Johnny West & crew were lucky to get off so easy. While that was their first and last day of dogma, I weathered a myriad of horrors both physical and emotional for another twenty years before I found the strength to leave Christian Science. I was in my early thirties when I started to question the circular logic. The fear. The shame. 

When I finally quit beating a dead horse.

(Serendipitous photos found online. No toys were harmed in the making of this post.)


  1. I think you are cool.
    ...from a REAL Johnny West.

    1. Thanks. I never made it farther west than upstate NY, except in my dreams. But I've got my little range here. :D